More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life.
Hericium erinaceus (Examine.com) was recommended strongly by several on the ImmInst.org forums for its long-term benefits to learning, apparently linked to Nerve growth factor. Highly speculative stuff, and it’s unclear whether the mushroom powder I bought was the right form to take (ImmInst.org discussions seem to universally assume one is taking an alcohol or hotwater extract). It tasted nice, though, and I mixed it into my sleeping pills (which contain melatonin & tryptophan). I’ll probably never know whether the $30 for 0.5lb was well-spent or not.
My first time was relatively short: 10 minutes around the F3/F4 points, with another 5 minutes to the forehead. Awkward holding it up against one’s head, and I see why people talk of LED helmets, it’s boring waiting. No initial impressions except maybe feeling a bit mentally cloudy, but that goes away within 20 minutes of finishing when I took a nap outside in the sunlight. Lostfalco says Expectations: You will be tired after the first time for 2 to 24 hours. It’s perfectly normal., but I’m not sure - my dog woke me up very early and disturbed my sleep, so maybe that’s why I felt suddenly tired. On the second day, I escalated to 30 minutes on the forehead, and tried an hour on my finger joints. No particular observations except less tiredness than before and perhaps less joint ache. Third day: skipped forehead stimulation, exclusively knee & ankle. Fourth day: forehead at various spots for 30 minutes; tiredness 5/6/7/8th day (11/12/13/4): skipped. Ninth: forehead, 20 minutes. No noticeable effects.
Taking the tryptophan is fairly difficult. The powder as supplied by Bulk Nutrition is extraordinarily dry and fine; it seems to be positively hydrophobic. The first time I tried to swallow a teaspoon, I nearly coughed it out - the power had seemed to explode in my mouth and go down my lungs. Thenceforth I made sure to have a mouth of water first. After a while, I took a different tack: I mixed in as much Hericium as would fit in the container. The mushroom powder is wetter and chunkier than the tryptophan, and seems to reduce the problem. Combining the mix with chunks of melatonin inside a pill works even better.
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Nootrobox co-founder Geoffrey Woo declines a caffeinated drink in favour of a capsule of his newest product when I meet him in a San Francisco coffee shop. The entire industry has a “wild west” aura about it, he tells me, and Nootrobox wants to fix it by pushing for “smarter regulation” so safe and effective drugs that are currently unclassified can be brought into the fold. Predictably, both companies stress the higher goal of pushing forward human cognition. “I am trying to make a smarter, better populace to solve all the problems we have created,” says Nootroo founder Eric Matzner.
Modafinil is a eugeroic, or ‘wakefulness promoting agent’, intended to help people with narcolepsy. It was invented in the 1970s, but was first approved by the American FDA in 1998 for medical use. Recent years have seen its off-label use as a ‘smart drug’ grow. It’s not known exactly how Modafinil works, but scientists believe it may increase levels of histamines in the brain, which can keep you awake. It might also inhibit the dissipation of dopamine, again helping wakefulness, and it may help alertness by boosting norepinephrine levels, contributing to its reputation as a drug to help focus and concentration.
The concept of neuroenhancement and the use of substances to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals, is certainly not a new one. In fact, one of the first cognitive enhancement drugs, Piracetam, was developed over fifty years ago by psychologist and chemist C.C. Giurgea. Although he did not know the exact mechanism, Giurgia believed the drug boosted brain power and so began his exploration into "smart pills", or nootropics, a term he coined from the Greek nous, meaning "mind," and trepein, meaning "to bend.
One of the most widely known classes of smart drugs on the market, Racetams, have a long history of use and a lot of evidence of their effectiveness. They hasten the chemical exchange between brain cells, directly benefiting our mental clarity and learning process. They are generally not controlled substances and can be purchased without a prescription in a lot of locations globally.
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A total of 14 studies surveyed reasons for using prescription stimulants nonmedically, all but one study confined to student respondents. The most common reasons were related to cognitive enhancement. Different studies worded the multiple-choice alternatives differently, but all of the following appeared among the top reasons for using the drugs: “concentration” or “attention” (Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Teter, McCabe, Cranford, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2005; White et al., 2006); “help memorize,” “study,” “study habits,” or “academic assignments” (Arria et al., 2008; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2005, 2006; White et al., 2006); “grades” or “intellectual performance” (Low & Gendaszek, 2002; White et al., 2006); “before tests” or “finals week” (Hall et al., 2005); “alertness” (Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Teter et al., 2003, 2005, 2006); or “performance” (Novak et al., 2007). However, every survey found other motives mentioned as well. The pills were also taken to “stay awake,” “get high,” “be able to drink and party longer without feeling drunk,” “lose weight,” “experiment,” and for “recreational purposes.”
These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU35, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.
All of the coefficients are positive, as one would hope, and one specific factor (MR7) squeaks in at d=0.34 (p=0.05). The graph is much less impressive than the graph for just MP, suggesting that the correlation may be spread out over a lot of factors, the current dataset isn’t doing a good job of capturing the effect compared to the MP self-rating, or it really was a placebo effect:
I tried taking whole pills at 1 and 3 AM. I felt kind of bushed at 9 AM after all the reading, and the 50 minute nap didn’t help much - I was sleep only around 10 minutes and spent most of it thinking or meditation. Just as well the 3D driver is still broken; I doubt the scores would be reasonable. Began to perk up again past 10 AM, then felt more bushed at 1 PM, and so on throughout the day; kind of gave up and began watching & finishing anime (Amagami and Voices of a Distant Star) for the rest of the day with occasional reading breaks (eg. to start James C. Scotts Seeing Like A State, which is as described so far). As expected from the low quality of the day, the recovery sleep was bigger than before: a full 10 hours rather than 9:40; the next day, I slept a normal 8:50, and the following day ~8:20 (woken up early); 10:20 (slept in); 8:44; 8:18 (▁▇▁▁). It will be interesting to see whether my excess sleep remains in the hour range for ’good modafinil nights and two hours for bad modafinil nights.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.